Admittedly, my knowledge of North African literature is quite weak beyond the obvious and most famous books. So I turned to M. Lynx Qualey for help when I thought of compiling a list for the Africa Reading Challenge. She is the blogger behind the very comprehensive and wonderful Arabic Literature (in English).
She kindly obliged my request for a ” list of must read/favorites of North African lit in translation”. I’m grateful for her response, which is:
It is very hard for me — and not just me — not to over-represent Egypt when writing about Arab and Arabic literature. Some do better than others: While the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has managed to keep Egyptians to only around 30 percent of their shortlists and winners, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature skews to more like 50 percent Egyptian.
But as Dr. Samia Mehrez, chair of the Mahfouz medal committee said, “Egypt produces a tremendous lot, whether we like it or not. A lot of what Egypt produces is work that should be considered. We really cannot weigh all of the countries at the same level. Whether we like it or not.”
So, I have purposely not listed Egypt’s Nobel Prize winning author, nor the other Africans on the 1988 Nobel “shortlist” (Tayeb Salih, Yusuf Idris) or the African who was not included because he died in 1987 (Tawfiq al-Hakim) and the “Dean of Arabic Literature” (Taha Hussein). Nonetheless, Egypt remains the largest contributor to this list.
Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club. Ghali’s only novel, written in his third language (English), this gorgeous novel is set immediately in the aftermath of Egypt’s 1952 revolution and “independence” from Britain.
Sonallah Ibrahim, Stealth, trans. Hosam Aboul-ela. Ibrahim’s warmest novel is told sparely but lovingly. It’s the immediate post-WWII period and told from the point of view of a young boy who is not so unlike Ibrahim himself.
Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights, trans. Samah Selim; set in Brooklyn Heights and told by a reluctant immigrant to the U.S.; a beautiful layering of Bedouin Egypt and New York City as well as a lovely rendering of the relationship between mother and son.
Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron, trans. Elliott Colla. Aslan “wrote with an eraser” and cared deeply about the musicality of his prose. This novel is set among Egypt’s 1977 bread riots.
Ibrahim al-Koni, Bleeding of the Stone, trans. Maya Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley. A wonderful exploration of the relationships between power, human, and animal. A powerful contribution to writing about the boundaries between “human” and “animal.”
Bensalem Himmich, The Polymath, trans. Roger Allen. This enjoyable philosophical novel centers around the 14th century philosopher Ibn Khaldun.
Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone, trans. Paul Bowles. Choukri’s rich and raw autobiographical novel.
Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, trans. Marjolin de Jager. This is one of the classics of Algerian literature, penned by the sophisticated perpetual Nobel Prize shortlister.
Leila Marouane, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, trans. Allison Anderson. This is a delightful story within a story (within a story?) that explores the ways in which stories are told about North Africans.
Kateb Yacine, Nedjma, trans. Richard Howard. A Faulknerian exploration of Algeria, conquest, and love.
Tarek al-Tayeb’s The Palm House, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zaid, will be released shortly by AUC Press. You can read an excerpt now on Jadaliyya. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3863/the-palm-house
Note: Many acclaimed Tunisian authors have not had a book-length work translated into English: Mahmoud Messadi, Muhammad Salih al-Jabri, Aroussia Naluti, Al-Bashir bin Salamah, Al-Bashir Khareef, Salah al-Din Bujah, Abdel Qader Ben Shaikh, Faraj Al-Huwar, and Mohamed Al Aroussi Al Matuie, for instance.
Habib Selmi, Scent of Marie-Claire, trans. Fadwa Qasem. A somewhat clunky translation of this wonderful and nuanced psychological tale of a Tunisian in Paris and his French lover.
Rachida el-Charni’s short story “The Way to Poppy Street,” trans. Piers Amodia, was in the recent collection The Granta Book of the African Short Story.
Excerpts of Kamel Riahi’s new novel The Gorilla, have been translated and published in Banipal, The Arab Washingtonian, and Jadaliyya.